Military history

CHAMBERLAIN AT GODESBERG: SEPTEMBER 22–23

Though Chamberlain was bringing to Hitler all that he had asked for at their Berchtesgaden meeting, both men were uneasy as they met at the little Rhine town of Godesberg on the afternoon of September 22. The German chargé d’affaires, after seeing the Prime Minister off at the London airport, had rushed off a wire to Berlin: “Chamberlain and his party have left under a heavy load of anxiety … Unquestionably opposition is growing to Chamberlain’s policy.”

Hitler was in a highly nervous state. On the morning of the twenty-second I was having breakfast on the terrace of the Hotel Dreesen, where the talks were to take place, when Hitler strode past on his way down to the riverbank to inspect his yacht. He seemed to have a peculiar tic. Every few steps he cocked his right shoulder nervously, his left leg snapping up as he did so. He had ugly, black patches under his eyes. He seemed to be, as I noted in my diary that evening, on the edge of a nervous breakdown. “Teppichfresser!” muttered my German companion, an editor who secretly despised the Nazis. And he explained that Hitler had been in such a maniacal mood over the Czechs the last few days that on more than one occasion he had lost control of himself completely, hurling himself to the floor and chewing the edge of the carpet. Hence the term “carpet eater.” The evening before, while talking with some of the party hacks at the Dreesen, I had heard the expression applied to the Fuehrer—in whispers, of course.50

Despite his misgivings about the growing opposition to his policies at home, Mr. Chamberlain appeared to be in excellent spirits when he arrived at Godesberg and drove through streets decorated not only with the swastika but with the Union Jack to his headquarters at the Petershof, a castlelike hotel on the summit of the Petersberg, high above the opposite (right) bank of the Rhine. He had come to fulfill everything that Hitler had demanded at Berchtesgaden, and even more. There remained only the details to work out and for this purpose he had brought along, in addition to Sir Horace Wilson and William Strang (the latter a Foreign Office expert on Eastern Europe), the head of the drafting and legal department of the Foreign Office, Sir William Malkin.

Late in the afternoon the Prime Minister crossed the Rhine by ferry to the Hotel Dreesen* where Hitler awaited him. For once, at the start at least, Chamberlain did all the talking. For what must have been more than an hour, judging by Dr. Schmidt’s lengthy notes of the meeting,51 the Prime Minister, after explaining that following “laborious negotiations” he had won over not only the British and French cabinets but the Czech government to accept the Fuehrer’s demands, proceeded to outline in great detail the means by which they could be implemented. Accepting Runciman’s advice, he was now prepared to see the Sudetenland turned over to Germany without a plebiscite. As to the mixed areas, their future could be determined by a commission of three members, a German, a Czech and one neutral. Furthermore, Czechoslovakia’s mutual-assistance treaties with France and Russia, which were so distasteful to the Fuehrer, would be replaced by an international guarantee against an unprovoked attack on Czechoslovakia, which in the future “would have to be completely neutral.”

It all seemed so simple, so reasonable, so logical to the peace-loving British businessman become British Prime Minister. He paused with evident self-satisfaction, as one eyewitness recorded, for Hitler’s reaction.

“Do I understand that the British, French and Czech governments have agreed to the transfer of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Germany?” Hitler asked. He was astounded as he later told Chamberlain, that the concessions to him had gone so far and so fast.

“Yes,” replied the Prime Minister, smiling.

“I am terribly sorry,” Hitler said, “but after the events of the last few days, this plan is no longer of any use.”

Chamberlain, Dr. Schmidt later remembered, sat up with a start. His owllike face flushed with surprise and anger. But apparently not with resentment that Hitler had deceived him, that Hitler, like a common blackmailer, was upping his demands at the very moment they were being accepted. The Prime Minister described his own feelings at this moment in a report to the Commons a few days later:

I do not want the House to think that Hitler was deliberately deceiving me—I do not think so for one moment—but, for me, I expected that when I got back to Godesberg I had only to discuss quietly with him the proposals that I had brought with me; and it was a profound shock to me when I was told … that these proposals were not acceptable …

   Chamberlain saw the house of peace which he had so “laboriously” built up at the expense of the Czechs collapsing like a stack of cards. He was, he told Hitler, “both disappointed and puzzled. He could rightly say that the Fuehrer had got from him what he had demanded.”

   In order to achieve this he [Chamberlain] had risked his whole political career … He was being accused by certain circles in Great Britain of having sold and betrayed Czechoslovakia, of having yielded to the dictators, and on leaving England that morning he actually had been booed.

   But the Fuehrer was unmoved by the personal plight of the British Prime Minister. The Sudeten area, he demanded, must be occupied by Germany at once. The problem “must be completely and finally solved by October first, at the latest.” He had a map handy to indicate what territories must be ceded immediately.

And so, his mind “full of foreboding,” as he later told the Commons, Chamberlain withdrew across the Rhine “to consider what I was to do.” There seemed so little hope that evening that after he had consulted with his own cabinet colleagues and with members of the French government by telephone it was agreed that London and Paris should inform the Czech government the next day that they could not “continue to take the responsibility of advising them not to mobilize.”*

At 7:20 that evening General Keitel telephoned Army headquarters from Godesberg: “Date (of X Day) cannot yet be ascertained. Continue preparations according to plan. If Case Green occurs, it will not be before September 30. If it occurs sooner, it will probably be improvised.”53

For Adolf Hitler himself was caught in a dilemma. Though Chamberlain did not know it, the Fuehrer’s real objective, as he had laid it down in his OKW directive after the May crisis, was “to destroy Czechoslovakia by military action.” To accept the Anglo–French plan, which the Czechs already had agreed to, however reluctantly, would not only give Hitler his Sudeten Germans but would effectively destroy the Czech state, since it would be left defenseless. But it would not be by military action, and the Fuehrer was determined not only to humiliate President Beneš and the Czech government, which had so offended him in May, but to expose the spinelessness of the Western powers. For that, at least a military occupation was necessary. It could be bloodless, as was the military occupation of Austria, but it must take place. He must have at least that much revenge on the upstart Czechs.

There was no further contact between the two men on the evening of September 22. But after sleeping on the problem and spending the early morning pacing his balcony overlooking the Rhine, Chamberlain sat down following breakfast and wrote a letter to Hitler. He would submit the new German demands to the Czechs but he did not think they would be accepted. In fact, he had no doubt that the Czechs would forcibly resist an immediate occupation by German troops. But he was willing to suggest to Prague, since all parties had agreed on the transfer of the Sudeten area to Germany, that the Sudeten Germans themselves maintain law and order in their area until it was turned over to the Reich.

To such a compromise Hitler would not listen. After keeping the Prime Minister waiting throughout most of the day he finally replied by note with a bitter tirade, again rehearsing all the wrongs the Czechs had done to Germans, again refusing to modify his position and concluding that war “now appears to be the case.” Chamberlain’s answer was brief. He asked Hitler to put his new demands in writing, “together with a map,” and undertook “as mediator” to send them to Prague. “I do not see that I can perform any further service here,” he concluded. “I propose therefore to return to England.”

Before doing so he came over once again to the Dreesen for a final meeting with Hitler which began at 10:30 on the evening of September 23. Hitler presented his demands in the form of a memorandum with an accompanying map. Chamberlain found himself confronted with a new time limit. The Czechs were to begin the evacuation of the ceded territory by 8 A.M. on September 26—two days hence—and complete it by September 28.

“But this is nothing less than an ultimatum!” Chamberlain exclaimed.

“Nothing of the sort,” Hitler shot back. When Chamberlain retorted that the German word Diktat applied to it, Hitler answered, “It is not a Diktat at all. Look, the document is headed by the word ‘Memorandum.’”

At this moment an adjutant brought in an urgent message for the Fuehrer. He glanced at it and tossed it to Schmidt, who was interpreting. “Read this to Mr. Chamberlain.”

Schmidt did. “Beneš has just announced over the radio a general mobilization in Czechoslovakia.”

The room, Schmidt recalled afterward, was deadly still. Then Hitler spoke: “Now, of course, the whole affair is settled. The Czechs will not dream of ceding any territory to Germany.”

Chamberlain, according to the Schmidt minutes, disagreed. In fact, there followed a furious argument.

   The Czechs had mobilized first [said Hitler]. Chamberlain contradicted this. Germany had mobilized first … The Fuehrer denied that Germany had mobilized.

   And so the talks continued into the early-morning hours. Finally, after Chamberlain had inquired whether the German memorandum “was really his last word” and Hitler had replied that it was indeed, the Prime Minister answered that there was no point in continuing the conversations. He had done his utmost; his efforts had failed. He was going away with a heavy heart, for the hopes with which he had come to Germany were destroyed.

The German dictator did not want Chamberlain to get off the hook. He responded with a “concession.”

“You are one of the few men for whom I have ever done such a thing,” he said breezily. “I am prepared to set one single date for the Czech evacuation—October first—if that will facilitate your task.” And so saying, he took a pencil and changed the dates himself. This, of course, was no concession at all. October 1 had been X Day all along.*

But it seems to have impressed the Prime Minister. “He fully appreciated,” Schmidt recorded him as saying, “the Fuehrer’s consideration on the point.” Nevertheless, he added, he was not in a position to accept or reject the proposals; he could only transmit them.

The ice, however, had been broken, and as the meeting broke up at 1:30 A.M. the two men seemed, despite all that had happened, to be closer together personally than at any time since they had first met. I myself, from a vantage point twenty-five feet away in the porter’s booth, where I had set up a temporary broadcasting studio, watched them say their farewells near the door of the hotel. I was struck by their cordiality to each other. Schmidt took down the words which I could not hear.

   Chamberlain bid a hearty farewell to the Fuehrer. He said he had the feeling that a relationship of confidence had grown up between himself and the Fuehrer as a result of the conversations of the last few days…. He did not cease to hope that the present difficult crisis would be overcome, and then he would be glad to discuss other problems still outstanding with the Fuehrer in the same spirit.

The Fuehrer thanked Chamberlain for his words and told him that he had similar hopes. As he had already stated several times, the Czech problem was the last territorial demand which he had to make in Europe.

   This renunciation of further land grabs seems to have impressed the departing Prime Minister too, for in his subsequent report to the House of Commons he stressed that Hitler had made it “with great earnestness.”

When Chamberlain arrived at his hotel toward 2 A.M. he was asked by a journalist, “Is the position hopeless, sir?”

“I would not like to say that,” the Prime Minister answered. “It is up to the Czechs now.”55

It did not occur to him, it is evident, that it was up to the Germans, with their outrageous demands, too.

In fact, no sooner had the Prime Minister returned to London on September 24 than he attempted to do the very thing he had informed Hitler he would not do: persuade the British cabinet to accept the new Nazi demands. But now he ran into unexpected opposition. Duff Cooper, the First Lord of the Admiralty, firmly opposed him. Surprisingly, so did Lord Halifax, though very reluctantly. Chamberlain could not carry his cabinet. Nor could he persuade the French government, which on the twenty-fourth rejected the Godesberg memorandum and on the same day ordered a partial mobilization.

When the French ministers, headed by Premier Daladier, arrived in London on Sunday, September 25, the two governments were apprised of the formal rejection of the Godesberg proposals by the Czech government.* There was nothing for the French to do but affirm that they would honor their word and come to the aid of Czechoslovakia if attacked. But they had to know what Britain would do. Finally cornered, or so it seemed, Chamberlain agreed to inform Hitler that if France became engaged in war with Germany as a result of her treaty obligations to the Czechs, Britain would feel obliged to support her.

But first he would make one last appeal to the German dictator. Hitler was scheduled to make a speech at the Sportpalast in Berlin on September 26. In order to induce him not to burn his bridges Chamberlain once again dashed off a personal letter to Hitler and on the afternoon of the twenty-sixth rushed it to Berlin by his faithful aide, Sir Horace Wilson, who sped to the German capital by special plane.

   On the departure of Chamberlain from the Dreesen in the early-morning hours of September 24, the Germans had been plunged into gloom. Now that war seemed to face them, some of them, at least, did not like it. I lingered in the hotel lobby for some time over a late supper. Goering, Goebbels, Ribbentrop, General Keitel and lesser men stood around earnestly talking. They seemed dazed at the prospect of war.

In Berlin later that day I found hopes reviving. In the Wilhelmstrasse the feeling was that since Chamberlain, with all the authority of the British Prime Minister, had agreed to present Hitler’s new demands to Prague, it must be assumed that the British leader supported Hitler’s proposals. As we have seen, the assumption was quite correct—so far as it went.

Sunday, September 25, was a lovely day of Indian summer in Berlin, warm and sunny, and since it undoubtedly would be the last such weekend that autumn, half of the population flocked to the lakes and woods that surround the capital. Despite reports of Hitler’s rage at hearing that theGodesberg ultimatum was being rejected in Paris, London and Prague, there was no feeling of great crisis, certainly no war fever, in Berlin. “Hard to believe there will be war,” I noted in my diary that evening.*

On the Monday following there was a sudden change for the worse. At 5 P.M. Sir Horace Wilson, accompanied by Ambassador Henderson and Ivone Kirkpatrick, First Secretary of the British Embassy, arrived at the Chancellery bearing Chamberlain’s letter.57 They found Hitler in an ugly mood—probably he was already working himself down to a proper level for his Sportpalast speech three hours hence.

When Dr. Schmidt began to translate the letter, which stated that the Czech government had informed the Prime Minister that the Godesberg memorandum was “wholly unacceptable,” just as he had warned at Godesberg, Hitler, according to Schmidt, suddenly leaped up, shouting, “There’s no sense at all in negotiating further!” and bounded for the door.58

It was a painful scene, says the German interpreter. “For the first and only time in my presence, Hitler completely lost his head.” And according to the British present, the Fuehrer, who soon stamped back to his chair, kept further interrupting the reading of the letter by screaming, “The Germans are being treated like niggers … On October first I shall have Czechoslovakia where I want her. If France and England decide to strike, let them … I do not care a pfennig.”

Chamberlain had proposed that since the Czechs were willing to give Hitler what he wanted, the Sudeten areas, a meeting of Czech and German representatives be called immediately to settle “by agreement the way in which the territory is to be handed over.” He added that he was willing to have British representatives sit in at the meeting. Hitler’s response was that he would negotiate details with the Czechs if they accepted in advance the Godesberg memorandum (which they had just rejected) and agreed to a German occupation of the Sudetenland by October 1. He must have an affirmative reply, he said, within forty-four hours—by 2 P.M. on September 28.

That evening Hitler burned his bridges, or so it seemed to those of us who listened in amazement to his mad outburst at the jammed Sportpalast in Berlin. Shouting and shrieking in the worst paroxysm I had ever seen him in, he venomously hurled personal insults at “Herr Beneš,” declared that the issue of war or peace was now up to the Czech President and that, in any case, he would have the Sudetenland by October 1. Carried away as he was by his angry torrent of words and the ringing cheers of the crowd, he was shrewd enough to throw a sop to the British Prime Minister. He thanked him for his efforts for peace and reiterated that this was his last territorial claim in Europe. “We want no Czechs!” he muttered contemptuously.

Throughout the harangue I sat in a balcony just above Hitler, trying with no great success to broadcast a running translation of his words. That night in my diary I noted:

   … For the first time in all the years I’ve observed him he seemed tonight to have completely lost control of himself. When he sat down, Goebbels sprang up and shouted into the microphone: “One thing is sure: 1918 will never be repeated!” Hitler looked up to him, a wild, eager expression in his eyes, as if those were the words which he had been searching for all evening and hadn’t quite found. He leaped to his feet and with a fanatical fire in his eyes that I shall never forget brought his right hand, after a grand sweep, pounding down on the table, and yelled with all the power in his mighty lungs: “Ja!” Then he slumped into his chair exhausted.

He was fully recovered when he received Sir Horace Wilson for the second time the next noon, September 27. The special envoy, a man with no diplomatic training but who was as anxious as the Prime Minister, if not more so, to give Hitler the Sudetenland if the dictator would only accept it peacefully, called Hitler’s attention to a special statement issued by Chamberlain in London shortly after midnight in response to the Fuehrer’s Sportpalast speech. In view of the Chancellor’s lack of faith in Czech promises, the British government, Chamberlain said, would regard itself “as morally responsible” for seeing that the Czech promises were carried out “fairly, fully and with all reasonable promptitude.” He trusted that the Chancellor would not reject this proposal.

But Hitler showed no interest in it. He had, he said, no further message for Mr. Chamberlain. It was now up to the Czechs. They could accept or reject his demands. If they rejected them, he shouted angrily, “I shall destroy Czechoslovakia!” He kept repeating the threat with obvious relish.

Apparently that was too much even for the accommodating Wilson, who rose to his feet and said, “In that case, I am entrusted by the Prime Minister to make the following statement: ‘If France, in fulfillment of her treaty obligations, should become actively engaged in hostilities against Germany, the United Kingdom would feel obliged to support France.’”

“I can only take note of that position,” Hitler replied with some heat. “It means that if France elects to attack Germany, England will feel obliged to attack her also.”

When Sir Horace replied that he had not said that, that it was up to Hitler, after all, whether there would be peace or war, the Fuehrer, working himself up by now to a fine lather, shouted, “If France and England strike, let them do so! It’s a matter of complete indifference to me. Today is Tuesday; by next Monday we shall be at war.”

According to Schmidt’s official notes on the meeting, Wilson apparently wished to continue the conversation, but was advised by Ambassador Henderson to desist. This did not prevent the inexperienced special envoy from getting in a word with the Fuehrer alone as the meeting broke up. “I shall try to make these Czechs sensible,”* he assured Hitler, and the latter replied that he “would welcome that.” Perhaps, the Fuehrer must have thought, Chamberlain could still be coaxed to go further in making the Czechs “sensible.” That evening, in fact, he sat down and dictated to the Prime Minister a shrewdly worded letter.

There were well-grounded reasons for writing it. Much had happened in Berlin—and elsewhere—during that day, September 27.

At 1 P.M., shortly after Wilson’s departure, Hitler issued a “most secret” order directing assault units comprising some twenty-one reinforced regiments, or seven divisions, to move forward from their training areas to the jumping-off points on the Czech frontier. “They must be ready,” said the order, “to begin action against ‘Green’ on September 30, the decision having been made one day previously by twelve noon.” A few hours later a further concealed mobilization was ordered by the Fuehrer. Among other measures, five new divisions were mobilized for the west.59

But even as Hitler went ahead with his military moves, there were developments during the day which made him hesitate. In order to stir up some war fever among the populace Hitler ordered a parade of a motorized division through the capital at dusk—an hour when hundreds of thousands of Berliners would be pouring out of their offices onto the streets. It turned out to be a terrible fiasco—at least for the Supreme Commander. The good people of Berlin simply did not want to be reminded of war. In my diary that night I noted down the surprising scene.

   I went out to the corner of the Linden where the column [of troops] was turning down the Wilhelmstrasse, expecting to see a tremendous demonstration. I pictured the scenes I had read of in 1914 when the cheering throngs on this same street tossed flowers at the marching soldiers, and the girls ran up and kissed them … But today they ducked into the subways, refused to look on, and the handful that did stood at the curb in utter silence … It has been the most striking demonstration against war I’ve ever seen.

   At the urging of a policeman I walked down the Wilhelmstrasse to the Reichskanzlerplatz, where Hitler stood on a balcony of the Chancellery reviewing the troops.

   … There weren’t two hundred people there. Hitler looked grim, then angry, and soon went inside, leaving his troops to parade by unreviewed. What I’ve seen tonight almost rekindles a little faith in the German people. They are dead set against war.

   Within the Chancellery there was further bad news—this from abroad. There was a dispatch from Budapest saying that Yugoslavia and Rumania had informed the Hungarian government that they would move against Hungary militarily if she attacked Czechoslovakia. That would spread the war to the Balkans, something Hitler did not want.

The news from Paris was graver. From the German military attaché there came a telegram marked “Very Urgent” and addressed not only to the Foreign Ministry but to OKW and the General Staff. It warned that France’s partial mobilization was so much like a total one “that I reckon with the completion of the deployment of the first 65 divisions on the German frontier by the sixth day of mobilization.” Against such a force the Germans had, as Hitler knew, barely a dozen divisions, half of them reserve units of doubtful value. Furthermore, wired the German military attaché, “it appears probable that in the event of belligerent measures by Germany … an immediate attack will take place, in all probability from Lower Alsace and from Lorraine in the direction of Mainz.”

Finally, this German officer informed Berlin, the Italians were doing absolutely nothing to pin down French troops on the Franco–Italian frontier.60 Mussolini, the valiant ally, seemed to be letting Hitler down in a crucial hour.

And then, the President of the United States and the King of Sweden were butting in. The day before, on the twenty-sixth, Roosevelt had addressed an appeal to Hitler to help keep the peace, and though Hitler had answered it within twenty-four hours, saying that peace depended solely on the Czechs, there came another message from the American President during the course of this day, Wednesday the twenty-seventh, suggesting an immediate conference of all the nations directly interested and implying that if war broke out the world would hold Hitler responsible.61

The King of Sweden, staunch friend of Germany, as he had proved during the 1914–18 war, was more frank. During the afternoon a dispatch arrived in Berlin from the German minister in Stockholm saying that the King had hastily summoned him and told him that unless Hitler extended his time limit of October 1 by ten days world war would inevitably break out, Germany would be solely to blame for it and moreover just as inevitably would lose it “in view of the present combination of the Powers.” In the cool, neutral air of Stockholm, the shrewd King was able to assess at least the military situation more objectively than the heads of government in Berlin, London and Paris.

President Roosevelt, as perhaps was necessary in view of American sentiment, had weakened his two appeals for peace by stressing that the United States would not intervene in a war nor even assume any obligations “in the conduct of the present negotiations.” The German ambassador in Washington, Hans Dieckhoff, therefore thought it necessary to get off a “very urgent” cable to Berlin during the day. He warned that if Hitler resorted to force and was opposed by Britain he had reason to assume “that the whole weight of the United States [would] be thrown into the scale on the side of Britain.” And the ambassador, usually a timid man when it came to standing up to the Fuehrer, added, “I consider it my duty to emphasize this very strongly.” He did not want the German government to stumble into the same mistaken assumptions it had made about America in 1914.

And Prague? Was there any sign of weakening there? In the evening came a telegram from Colonel Toussaint, the German military attaché, to OKW: “Calm in Prague. Last mobilization measures carried out … Total estimated call-up is 1,000,000; field army 800,000 …”62 That was as many trained men as Germany had for two fronts. Together the Czechs and the French outnumbered the Germans by more than two to one.

Faced with these facts and developments and no doubt mindful of Wilson’s parting words and of Chamberlain’s character and of Chamberlain’s utter fear of war, Hitler sat down early on that evening of September 27 to dictate a letter to the Prime Minister. Dr. Schmidt, who was called in to translate it into English, got the feeling that the dictator was shrinking back “from the extreme step.” Whether Hitler knew that the order was going out that evening for the mobilization of the British fleet cannot be established. Admiral Raeder arranged to see the Fuehrer at 10 P.M., and it is possible that the German Navy learned of the British move, which was made at 8 P.M. and publicly announced at 11:38 P.M., and that Raeder informed Hitler by telephone. At any rate, when the Admiral arrived he appealed to the Fuehrer not to go to war.

What Hitler did know at this moment was that Prague was defiant, Paris rapidly mobilizing, London stiffening, his own people apathetic, his leading generals dead against him, and that his ultimatum on the Godesberg proposals expired at 2 P.M. the next day.

His letter was beautifully calculated to appeal to Chamberlain. Moderate in tone, it denied that his proposals would “rob Czechoslovakia of every guarantee of its existence” or that his troops would fail to stop at the demarcation lines. He was ready to negotiate details with the Czechs; he was ready to “give a formal guarantee for the remainder of Czechoslovakia.” The Czechs were holding out simply because they hoped, with the help of England and France, to start a European war. Nevertheless, he did not slam the door on the last hopes of peace.

   I must leave it to your judgment [he concluded] whether, in view of these facts, you consider that you should continue your effort … to spoil such maneuvers and bring the Government in Prague to reason at the very last hour.63

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